Monday, February 9, 2009

How noble in reason, but how infinite in faculty...

"You see things; and you say, "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say, "Why not?""

We’ve come to a point in our collective experience as a society, hit from all sides by a flailing economy, that we are resigned to hunker down. We’re working hard, glad if we actually have a job to work hard at, stashing any excess cash under the mattress (as banks, of course, can’t be trusted anymore) and just keeping our head down so the recession monster can’t come and snatch up our heavily mortgaged house. The tags of our daily life are now ‘surviving the downturn’, ‘weathering the storm’ and ‘simplifying your lifestyle’. It is certainly not a good climate for day-dreaming. "Day dreaming?" you laugh. You know, going inward, allowing the sub-conscious to take flight, throwing off the shackles of the mundane world, like we do while we sleep, but only you’re actually awake. But these days if someone were at their desk and caught staring off into space, the office collective would probably shake it’s head and silently confirm that if someone had to go- it was going to be the day dreamer. Why? Because not actually ‘doing’ something physical, not indicating the ‘work’ that you are doing with your body, is more often than not seen as doing nothing at all. We’re by-products of the Industrial Revolution and the Puritanical settlers of this country. The enlightened didn’t jump on the first rickety ships to the New World, the workers, the builders, the farmers looking for a better life, enslaved under the ruling thumb of the imperialist governments, did. When the going gets tough, that historical arch-type, the one who laid the concrete foundation for this powerful nation, is who we are supposed to become again. It’s time to work, not think...or at least if you have to think, think hard!  Ugh.  

"The source and center of all man's creative power. . . is his power of making images, or the power of imagination.

My husband often catches me staring at a wall. After years of doing this he still seems confounded by it. No, I’m not solving some quantum physics problem in my head (though I’d like to be able to). Usually, I’m staring at the wall because I’m creating an image in my head that satiates my need for aesthetic beauty. I love interior decorating and design so I imagine what my house could look like if I had a willing handyman and a five figure remodeling budget. Regardless of that not being a reality, in my head I’m still reconfiguring our furniture layout and changing the wall color, if only just one wall so that it would be more of an accent and increase the depth of the room, helped by the addition of the large William Sonoma Home mirror that would be purchased and hung horizontally. Then there would be the new built in sofa type bench along the side windows that would make our dining area feel more like a lived-in library than a regular dining area that rarely gets used. (I think dining tables and chairs, propped there in a middle of a room with no other purpose than a random dinner party or an extra desk is stupid and eerie). But there’s no possible way that my husband can peek into my mind and know that I am visualizing and crafting this image (but he does however comment that the house looks nice after I've clustered the angular Picasso prints and our montage of black and white Parisian prints together to contrast with the gilded mirror.)  So instead he just waves his hand in front of my face until my focus comes back to the show we’re watching, or until I bat his hand away and growl, "I'm thinking!", which is usually the case. 

Just to state the obvious, I like to put my brain to better use than just creating a virtual page out of the now defunct Domino magazine (grrrr dumb economy).  Whatever I am working on, I always try to take myself out of that I have 20 things on my list to get done! state of mind and coax my brain to just freely focus what I am trying to achieve, whether it's a marketing strategy for 'After Judgment' or the integral scene that will link the secondary plot to the main narrative on our tv project.  When I achieve this focus, there is a LOT of staring into space going on.  But then intense scribbling and typing usually follows.  I like to think and I really like my imagination. It's a trippy place to visit and I have recently started to become a frequent traveler and embrace it’s vastness and it’s power. I think that the power of the imagination needs to be championed...because it's infinite.

I happened to watch three movies this weekend that inspired me to continue musing on the topic of creativity and now the power of imagination: 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly', 'Coraline' and 'Man on Wire'. Each of these stories and their cinematic representations are unique; all of them represent a ‘first’, either in the content of the story or they way in which they are told. The first and most meaningful to me was 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'. Jean-Dominique Bauby or Jean Do, as his friends called him, wrote a personal memoir having only the use of his left eye to communicate. Seriously, I know! This sounds beyond the realm of truthful human experience but it is indeed a true story. This movie rocked me to the core. As any good filmmaker can do, one is made to empathize and connect with the protagonist. But in this case, director (and artist) Julian Schnabel takes it to a nauseating and claustrophobic extreme by breaking the fourth wall and giving the audience the experience of being Jean Do as he wakes up from his 20 day post-stroke coma, only to discover his condition of being completely paralyzed with a fully-functional brain, or ‘locked in’ as it is called. Kathleen Kennedy, during the commentary, acknowledged my initial revulsion at being put through this visceral experience…I honestly didn’t think that I could handle it. My active, imaginative brain quickly placed myself in that very predicament, as if I was deep into character study, and I began to weep, going crazy in the ‘what would I do’ if something as horrible as this were to happen to me or a loved one. But then, out of the claustrophobic darkness the film had thrust me into came a bright relief - a sweeping overhead shot of a snow-covered mountain peak interrupted by the movement of a small dark figure carving long serpentines down the powdery face. This was Jean Do, living life both as he had before but also in the now. He was free in the moment, in his mind.  Then he fluidly moved to his memory of a beach, to feasting, to lovemaking; he let himself experience them all in his mind, as freely as if he were there rolling in the sand with his lover, waves crashing over him. This was the moment when he allowed his fully-functioning brain to become a portal to the larger than life experiences that he had already had and still wanted to have. He gave himself over to the power of his mind. He countered the oppressive feeling of the diving bell, the metal diving suit that trapped him motionless beneath the water, with that of a winged creature, free to escape the confinements of the mortal world.

"My cocoon becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas's court."

At this point in the film my breathing returned to normal and I just reveled in this enlightened man’s quest to tell his story and live and love in the rare moments that he had left on this earth, mostly because he gave himself over to, well himself.

The other two films that I was lucky enough to see this weekend were ‘Coraline’ and ‘Man on Wire’. ‘Coraline’, the exquisite marriage of Neil Gaiman’s imaginative story and Henry Selick’s rare talent for directing within the confines of stop-motion animation left me giddy - as if I were six again watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for the first time. This film was the first product out of Phil Knight’s studio Laika and it was a 3-D masterpiece, first of it’s kind. Who knew that a nine and a half inch model puppet and her adventures into an alternate universe (that keenly played upon her boredom and disconnect from her parents) could affect me on such an emotional level. Then there was ‘Man on Wire’, a documentary about tightrope walker Phillipe Petit and ‘his artistic crime of the century’. Through this film I learned about a true artist, malleable athlete and manic visionary who engineered and performed the first and only tightrope walk between the tops of the World Trade Centers. What most struck me about this story was Phillipe’s initial vision and how he turned it into a reality. The first time he read the news story about the Towers being built (they were simply foundations and a set of plans at that time), he immediately believed that his purpose was to walk between their peaks. And when I say walk, there is nothing pedestrian about his movements. He danced on this taught steel wire, dipping, kneeling, gliding, even laying down horizontally, balancing 1400 feet in the air (as well as making the cross eight times!). As he could see it in his mind, he accomplished it, but after years of planning and preparing.

So what does this mean for all of us. For me, these films inspire me to go further, that I can accomplish more, that my brain is capable of creating more. Not to get all ‘The Secret’ on you but I wonder what we could all accomplish if we were given the permission, or even mandated to stop and just focus inward, let our imagination take over and give ourselves over to where it takes us. We are all capable of imaginative thought, regardless of our artistic temperament. Joseph Campbell, in his epic 'Power of Myth' interview with Bill Moyers, believes that all humans share the same source of imagination as it is "grounded in the energy of the organs of the body and these are the same in all human beings."  What if we allow for our natural impulses to be acknowledged and not squashed by a better ‘work ethic’ and the to-the-minute adult responsibilities. I’m not talking about encouraging pointless fantasies to engulf and override our day (though nothing wrong with fantasies here and there) but rather stepping back and acknowledging the power of our imagination to tackle some of the issues and problems that we all now face. 

Do I know how? No, of course not, and if I did I’d at least be making money off this blog, but why don’t we all, just for fun, STOP for a moment. And then Breathe. Think of what your personal roadblock is right now. Identify it. Then create the ideal. Watch yourself as you walk through it, live it, make it tangible. I can tell you that mine brings a smile to my face every time I access it. And then tell yourself that you can indulge in that ideal image whenever you need. It might identify some elements of your work and life that you are not giving yourself over to, that your mind will instinctively flutter to, like Jean Do’s butterfly. So go see ‘Coraline’ (support innovative filmmaking!), rent the other two films and relish in the delicious treat that you have between both your ears. What a piece of work is man...indeed.  Be back soon.

All Things T


1 Tim Street said...

I have often gotten in trouble for staring at a blank wall, not hearing conversations and generally being aloof. People often think I'm upset or interpret my silence as something negative towards them.

I'm a happy person who loves to get lost in my own thoughts.

I'm also very comfortable with silence.

Taryn O'Neill said...

Thanks for the comment Tim- I too like silence. It always reminds me of that scene in 'When Harry Met Sally' where they joke about how great it is that they can just have dinner and not have to talk (when in reality it's an uncomfortable by-product of their fling). But for me, that's exactly what I love. Finding someone who is comfortable with my silence.